Friday, June 13, 2014

Australia-Japan 2+2: opportunity lost?

Australia and Japan and what might have been

The photos from Tokyo that streamed through my twitter feed yesterday have inspired this brief preliminary response to the Australia-Japan 2+2 meeting between the foreign and defence ministers of both countries. As a long-time observer, an active one at that, of the Australia-Japan relationship, yesterday's meeting and subsequent press conference marks a shift in the relationship and the Asia-Pacific security environment. In short, did it have to be so?

The full set of photos can be found here on the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade website. But two that struck me as interesting for their symbolism included these:

Source: DFAT
Source: DFAT
Now, a disclaimer is required before we proceed. I am not a part of the Australia-Japan establishment, I have missed that boat and work somewhat independently of the groupthink in operation there. I have looked on with concern as the security relationship has developed in this way. And, it should be noted, I am currently completing a manuscript on the East Asia security community...a concept premised on the ending of war, not the enabling of it.  I am a supporter of Article 9 of the Japanese Constitution and the groups which aim to maintain its integrity.

These developments in the Australia-Japan relationship come at a time when a robust nationalist agenda is being pressed on both sides. In a way, it is an agreement for the times and the Australian government's actions will go a long way towards legitimising Japan's strengthening of its 'collective self-defence' aspirations in the region. It is the (almost) culmination of developments building since the 1990s when I recall the then Foreign Minister declaring that Australia supports Japan's incremental shift to a stronger defence posture.

Much commentary will pass on the 'positives' of this development. There will be a lot said about Japan emerging finally as a 'normal nation'. I discuss this in more depth in my forthcoming book. But as one whose work has been driven to find ways to strengthen cooperation and end war, I am concerned that, having reached the aphoristic fork in the road, we may have chosen the wrong path. 

Since 1946, or more properly 1947 with the promulgation of the new Constitution, Japan has been a nation which might have pursued a truly peaceful path. Article 9 in its original intention, might have held to that. I have suggested elsewhere that we might imagine a world where all constitutions included the equivalent of Article 9. But as students of Japan, we are aware that the interpretation of that Article has been stretched and stretched until breaking point. Each year I teach Japanese politics and each year I tell the students I don't think it can be stretched any further...each and every year. I think I need to change my description. 'It's broke, we need to fix it'.

In Japan, the present prime minister is seeking support to virtually dismiss the legitimacy of Article 9. Although Japan's Constitution, like Australia's, includes an article that does require a national referendum to seek amendment, there are moves afoot to circumvent this process. That is not surprising since any number of opinion polls do not support wholesale change to the intent of Article 9. The declaration of support from the Australian government in the last day or so will help Prime Minister Abe's cause.

I sometimes worry that history seems to be the preserve of academics and interested observers these days. The shift in the development of this element of the Australia-Japan relationship has been incremental and, for the most part, has been cheered on as a positive development. It is also done, it should be remembered, in the shadow of the overarching US security network. It might be different, under other circumstances. 

I am presently immersed in researching the development of the Australia-Japan relationship dating back to the 1890s, as Japan was an emerging nation, Australia a collection of colonies. I'm viewing the 'softly, softly' steps of the 1890s and drawing some interesting parallels in the 2010s. If we are to learn from history, we can seriously reflect on our past, in order to determine the steps we want to take for the future. 

International cooperation is necessary. It is where and how you choose to direct that cooperation that matters. Japan and Australia in their joint cooperation in the 1980s and 1990s in aid and development assistance, the precursors to a model of 'human security', for example, proffered 'another way' for international roles and actions. We've stepped back from innovation  and originality in international cooperation and fallen for realpolitik orthodoxy. A shame, it was promising while it lasted. 

One more photo doing the rounds in my Japanese twitter timeline really summed up what might be possible, if leaders were courageous: 

Tokyo Shimbun 'Desk Memo'

Essentially, it says that people, win or lose war, will bear grudges; whether through invasion or self-defence. Any country that has the time to argue for constitutional interpretation to allow war, could also have the diplomatic strength to be a country that can avoid war. Of course, these are sentiments that can be interpreted several ways, but let's face it, it takes more courage to stand up and prevent war, rather than ease its passage. 

I continue to write, in hope. And there will be further posts.

The joint media release can be found here in English (DFAT, Australia) and the Japanese one will be posted here shortly when available (MoFA, Japan).